October 26, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Steve Jobs’ Secret Formula: Sparta + Athens

October 2011 [updated] marks the tenth anniversary of the device that finally allowed me to explain what I do: “I write about iPods and stuff like that.” And today marks the three week anniversary of the passing of Steve Jobs, who didn’t invent the MP3 player or even the iPod for that matter, but arguably perfected both.

Listening to an NPR program that asked Greek residents of Athens, Georgia to explain the impact of the Greek financial crisis on their lives, it occurred to me that while most business leaders (and people for that matter) can be categorized by whether they resemble the ancient Athenians or Spartans, Steve Jobs’ approach to business balanced these opposing ideas in an unusual way.

In case it’s been a while since you studied world history, here’s the standard take on Athens vs. Sparta as explained by (who else?) Social Studies for Kids:

Spartan life was simple. The focus was on obedience and war. Slavery made this possible by freeing the young men from household and industrial duties and allowing them to focus on their military duties. Young boys were trained to be warriors; young girls were trained to be mothers of warriors.

Athenian life was a creative wonderland. As an Athenian, you could get a good education and could pursue any of several kinds of arts or sciences. You could serve in the army or navy, but you didn’t have to…

Remind you of anyone? If anyone has better explained the dual nature of Steve Jobs — a business warrior who “enslaved” employees by some accounts and prized creativity and the liberal arts — I have yet to read it. Here’s a partial rundown culled from various sources including these.

Steve Jobs the Spartan

  • ruthless businessman
  • exerted near-totalitarian control over his company and its creations
  • was a workaholic who authorized a biography partially to explain to his children what he had been doing and why he was so absent
  • convinced Steve Wozniak to sell computers instead of giving away schematics, and allegedly shortchanged him on an early check from Atari
  • scared employees with a combative management approach
  • tried to stage a “boardroom coup”
  • forced manufacturers of accessories to pay Apple if they wanted to make stuff that worked with Apple products, enforcing that policy with proprietary cables
  • bought Pixar for $10 million and sold it for $7.4 billion
  • refused to license Apple’s operating system to other companies
  • engaged in a public “war of words” with competitor Michael Dell
  • refused to respond to media requests except when it advanced a specific strategic goal like getting on the front of Time magazine
  • manufactured products in Chinese factories with conditions that some likened to slavery
  • eliminated Apple’s corporate philanthropy program and if he donated to causes, did so without the fanfare that accompanied competitor Bill Gates’ generosity
  • sued bloggers, issued threats, dispatched security forces when unreleased iPhones went missing

Steve Jobs the Athenian

  • Buddhist hippie
  • designed computers favored by students and schools
  • believed technology could be aligned with liberal arts
  • learned to read before he went to school and how to build things soon after
  • built the machines overwhelmingly favored by artists in all fields who work with computers
  • believed that only people who had done acid could truly understand him
  • thought he could invent a diet that would defeat a rare form of pancreatic cancer as effectively as surgery
  • built Pixar from almost-scratch to release some of the most beloved, creative animated movies of all time
  • made the personal computer much, much more “personal”
  • turned parts of Apple and Pixar into a “creative wonderland”
  • launched a (mostly) open iTunes app store, allowing thousands or more developers to support themselves through creativity
  • imagined and re-imagined humanistic computing machines with historically significant effects on mankind’s trajectory

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Jim Trottier

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_IENSHGPAITFW5GOPYSKJLRR2QQ Cat M

    As much as the cool physical devices, we must remember how revolutionary iTunes really is. I credit that to Steve Jobs too – bringing it about – really the music industry has been turned upside down in the last 10 years. No one mentions desktop publishing as a milestone after the passing of Steve Jobs too, but that was hugely insanely world-changing in the 1980s. Indeed Wired magazine is laid out on a Mac I bet, at least the copy for the physical paper version. Printing, publishing and graphic arts were revolutionized in the 1980s because of the Mac… the difference between Apple and Microsoft and Google though is the Mac, the iPhone. There is a Macintosh in the Smithsonian.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_75GTI2J3REJSCMSM5MWBUQKXFA Clawd

    you’re talking about a person who owned a company that made the movie Toy Story. Where does that fit in? We are all humans, complex, multi-faceted and grand.